With the departure of New Times columnist Lt. Col. Al Fonzi (U.S. Army, Ret.) and the paper's invitation to other conservative editorialists, I thought it timely to offer a larger perspective on conservatism's legacy from my 50 years of engaging with its philosophy. I'll start by saying Col. Fonzi and his colleague, the attorney John Donegan, have been disappointing. Neither have represented conservatism's higher aspirations. Alas, like Fox News, they are more about "owning the libs" and fanning hatred for Democrats. An authentic conservatism needs advocates capable of addressing the ideas and issues of our time.
The core belief of conservatism is its partiality to historically inherited social norms, policies, and practices. Thoughtful conservatives contend that societies—especially traditional ones—are complex and that their consolidation over decades and centuries should not be lightly tampered with because doing so risks social fracturing and the loss of vital legacies. If social change is to occur, it should be gradual so that society can adjust to innovations while minimizing upheavals and avoiding violent backlash.
But as history tells us, when a conservative society exists on the basis of exclusion, injustice, and cruelty, then disruptive social change becomes inevitable. Think of the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. African Americans demanding equal treatment under the law—especially in the Jim Crow South—provoked violent reactions from white supremacist conservatives claiming "the defense of our traditions and way of life."
Politically, conservatives desire a limited role for government. If government is to act, it should serve already functioning ways of life, typically at the civic and regional level where life is more closely lived and the issues better known. Government efforts—especially from federal and state institutions—to transform society from above are viewed with suspicion. Hence, conservatism will sense a threat in liberalism's modernization programs and expansion of human rights. The conservative fears that liberal efforts to cure what they see as evils and abuses in existing society will end up hurting more than helping. For example, do affirmative action programs in schools and businesses create discord by seeming to advantage one group over another?
My own journey in and out (but not quite!) of conservatism began with an interest to be informed beyond my Midwestern-born parents' narrow worldview. As beneficiaries of the post-World War II economic boom, my white, middle-class, suburban family rarely discussed the "big three" topics: politics, history, and religion. We attended church as our Sunday obligation, and after the concluding hymn, we shelved our one-hour-per-week God for the next six days and headed home to bask in our complacent pleasures.
My early college years brought an awareness of ideas beyond my social circle, but my inherited self-satisfaction and non-intellectual surroundings were barriers to deeper engagement. A bit later, however, just enough of my curiosity was piqued to start reading conservative editorials in newspapers that came into our home. William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, George Will, and Joseph Sobran filled in my thin convictions. This was followed by an early 20s collegiate flirtation with libertarian groups, but the rigid self-assurance of Ayn Rand devotees sent me packing. Thereafter I steered clear of conservative organizations but kept my interest alive via subscriptions to National Review and The American Spectator.
In the mid-1980s I was stirred to commit to intentional Christianity, a deeper spiritual connection than occasionally parking my derriere in a church pew. Religion, of course, is woven into the fabric of conservatism, but conservatism doesn't have a monopoly on religious life despite the assertions of white right-wing evangelicals. And here we must transcend the recent phase of angry populist and pietistic politics of America's religious right.
A higher level of the place of religion in conservatism is informed by philosophy and a historical consciousness, i.e. the use of reason. A few of my favorite heavyweights in the arena I call Classic Conservatism include Romano Guardini (1885-1968), Karl Rahner, SJ (1904-1984), the Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020), and Charles Taylor. All affirm what may be called the "Great Story" within the Judeo-Christian tradition. And while they rightly critique the narrow secular (non-transcendent) frame of human life within modernity, they are not blind to its benefits, e.g. science and medicine. They also urge humankind to reconnect with our origins in the sacred, and honor the civilizational calling to a shared and just life defined by mutual self-giving love.
In economics, conservatives have been staunch advocates of free market capitalism. I grew up in a Southern California town where the commercial enterprises reflected our community. Our shoe and toy store, our restaurants, and even our department stores, bore the names of the individuals or families who created them. Their helpful employees actually were informed about what they served or sold. This was the free market in a human scale and, to me, this was capitalism. Fast forward to the 2020s: Do today's conservatives really want to defend the gargantuan, glaringly lit consumerist warehouses like Walmart, Target, or Kohl's that are stuffed with cheap wares—often manufactured in sub-standard working conditions—from the Peoples' Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or the People's Republic of Bangladesh? This calls to mind a lunch table conversation I had while working at Loyola Marymount University 20 years ago. The two economists were going on about markets, the global economy, and consumption trends. Finally, the Jesuit-trained philosopher spoke up:
"What in your discussion makes for a moral economy?" A long silence ensued.
And I will close with a question of my own: At a time that marks the anniversary of the Trumpist insurrection and failed coup, and where 30 percent of right-wing Republicans believe violence may be needed to "save America," I ask today's conservatives: What is it exactly that you are trying to conserve? Δ
Gordon Fuglie researches and writes art history. Respond to firstname.lastname@example.org.